Commissioner Cobo to Physician: "That's Not the Way Things Are Done"

Yep, this one looks real bad. For the primer on the investigation of North Broward Hospital District Commissioner Joseph Cobo, check out this post from earlier this afternoon. Cobo is alleged to have used his public position to private advantage in his capacity as president / CEO of Florida Medical Management Consultants.

This post will deal with just one of five allegations of misconduct found to be "credible" by a district investigator, Martin Goldberg, who gave his findings to the commissioners yesterday. Among those allegations, Cobo is accused of having unethical business dealings with a new family physician in town, Dr. Dimitrios Lintzeris.

Goldberg found that Lintzeris contacted Cobo's firm FMMC around March or April 2008 to find out how he might help Lintzeris' fledgling practice in Aventura get a financial foothold in the region. The two met soon thereafter in Cobo's office. To quote Goldberg's recently released report:

"During the meeting, Cobo advised that he was a commissioner with Broward Health and was aware of a community need for family practice physicians at Imperial Point (Medical Center). Cobo immediately called Calvin Glidewell, chief executive officer of Imperial Point on speakerphone and introduced Lintzeris to Glidewell. A meeting was arranged for that afternoon between Glidewell and Lintzeris."

Only it seems Lintzeris wasn't looking for an employment contract with the facility so much as some "financial assistance." After their meeting, Glidewell phoned the district's acting general counsel, Troy Kishbaugh, on Lintzeris' behalf, but Kishbaugh told Glidewell the district couldn't provide the kind of help Lintzeris was looking for. Goldberg found that Cobo then contacted Kishbaugh and argued for Lintzeris' getting a relocation agreement, eventually persuading Kishbaugh. (It was Kishbaugh's January 2009 memo that contains the allegations that were the basis for the investigation.)

But though he received that agreement, Lintzeris ultimately decided against hiring Cobo, based on consultation with his attorney.

How did Cobo take this?

According to Goldberg's findings, by phoning Lintzeris and reminding him of the service he had performed. Soon after it became evident Lintzeris would get the collection guarantee agreement he wanted, Goldberg found that

"Cobo called Lintzeris and stated that it looked like everything got worked out for him at Imperial Point. Cobo explained that he wanted to set up a meeting with Lintzeris to get his practice set up through Cobo's company."

But Lintzeris already had an attorney helping him with his practice. Writes Goldberg: "When Linzeris rebuffed Cobo's suggestion that Lintzeris now retain FMMC, Cobo became angry with Lintzeris, raised his voice and said 'That's not the way things are done' and called Lintzeris 'unprofessional.'"

Both then called Glidewell, who gave an interview for the investigation. Lintzeris denied that he'd asked Cobo's assistance and Glidewell picked up Cobo on the other line to hear the commissioner upset about Lintzeris: "Cobo stated that he wanted to make Glidewell aware that Lintzeris was not up-front and wanted to warn Glidewell to be careful with him."

Does that warning constitute a blackballing of Lintzeris? If so, it didn't have the effect of blackballing -- Lintzeris got his agreement and is a member of the Imperial Point medical staff to this day. But it's evident that Lintzeris told Goldberg that he was worried about whether offending a Broward Health commissioner might "jeopardize" his relationship with the health care system and that these fears nearly made him hire Cobo in spite of their discord.

In a written response to allegations contained in the memo by Kishbaugh, Cobo claims that when he was contacted by Lintzeris he advised the doctor to seek an employment contract at Imperial Point based on there being a need for primary care physicians and that he called Glidewell to give him Lintzeris' name and information. But Cobo says that he was only "happy to help" and that he intervened on Lintzeris' behalf simply because he believed Kishbaugh's interpretation of the law to be wrong. Cobo says he told Lintzeris that he couldn't represent him and expressed astonishment about allegations of a bitter parting.

Still, it seems ambiguous as to whether Cobo was calling Glidewell on Lintzeris' behalf as a private consultant or as a commissioner? Are we really to believe that he was doing this bit of consulting work gratis, purely because he wanted to help Imperial Point get a physician? If so, why did Lintzeris feel pressured to hire Cobo?

Also, it must be awfully confusing for Broward Health employees like Glidewell who must decide whether they're speaking to the commissioner or the private consultant or both.

Finally, even if you give Cobo every benefit of the doubt, it still looks terrible. Considering Lintzeris was tempted to retain Cobo based on Cobo's public office, it's likely that other prospective physician clients have felt the same impulse and that Cobo's public job has the effect -- intended or not -- of helping his private one.

Ultimately, Goldberg found that even if Cobo was not seeking a client in Lintzeris the commissioner may still have violated the "non-interference provision" of the district charter. It states that "the board only exercise its oversight function as a whole body and not through the actions of any individual commissioner."

But if Cobo really was recruiting Lintzeris for a client by getting him positioned at Imperial Point, Goldberg concluded that "this is highly problematic from a legal perspective."

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